challenge grants definition

What Are Challenge Grants

Challenge grants can massively boost a recipient nonprofit campaign’s final fundraising numbers. Challenge grants are less about reaching a fundraising goal and more about surpassing one. They are largely beneficial for nonprofits and educational institutions.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know much of our content is focused on the matching gift and volunteer grants side of corporate giving. Challenge grants can fall within corporate giving as well, although they aren’t exclusively part of corporate giving.

Due to the cross-over with corporate giving, we’ve decided to focus some attention on these valuable grants, and there’s no better place to start than with a definition.

Challenge Grants Definition

Challenge grants are funds given by a grant making party to a nonprofit organization or educational institution following the successful fulfillment of a predetermined list of requirements.

That’s the basic definition, but to better explain the meaning behind it and the grants as a whole, the definition can be divided into three subcategories, or, more accurately, sub-questions:

  1. How do they work?
  2. What organizations serve to benefit from challenge grants?
  3. Why pursue a challenge grant?

Let’s begin with “how they work” to deepen your understanding of the fundraising opportunity.

How Do They Work?

Essentially, a nonprofit enters into an agreement. Per this agreement, the nonprofit works to raise a set number of funds. Once the fundraising campaign crosses that dollar amount threshold, the second party to the agreement grants the nonprofit funds of a previously specified amount.

Think about the process in terms of a volcano. The agreement is the volcano and the funds raised are the lava. Prior to an eruption, the lava builds inside the volcano. That process, pushing just to the edge of eruption, is all the work a nonprofit does to get to that funding threshold. Once the lava reaches a certain level, or the funds hit that set number, the volcano erupts. The volcanic eruption is equivalent to the point at which the grant maker grants the promised funds. From there the lava flows freely and over time (a long time) an island forms — a high revenue fundraising campaign turned quarter turned year.

Challenge grants are typically given out by foundations, trusts, corporations, or government agencies.

The preassigned funding threshold is not a lowball number, but rather a lofty goal that nonprofits have to reach in order to secure the grant.

The challenge can have multiple components. As part of the arrangement a grantee may have to increase its membership to a certain number or sell a specified amount of campaign t-shirts. The terms of challenge grants will vary from nonprofit to nonprofit and from grant maker to grant maker according to individual situations.

The grants function according to match ratios, just like employee matching gifts do. For example, with a challenge grant match that is set at 2:1, the grantee is responsible for the 2 and the grant maker is responsible for the 1. Given that, if a challenge grant is for $30,000, the grantee must bring in $60,000 in donations before receiving the grant maker’s $30,000.

Per the grant making organization’s stipulations, different applicants could be eligible for different ratios. For instance, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ most recent challenge grant program stipulations stated that recipients had to honor a 3:1 ratio, with the exception of a select few types of universities and colleges that could follow a 2:1 ratio.

Grants with high dollar amounts can even be set up to be earned and distributed in segments over a set period of time. Consider a $100,000 grant to be achieved over three years. In year one the grantee raises $50,000 and is matched for $25,000. In year two the grantee again raises $50,000 and is matched for $25,000. Finally, in year three the grantee raises $100,000 and is matched for $50,000.

Sample Four Year Challenge Grant
(Grant maker providing $1 for every $2 an organization raises)

Challenge Grants

Challenge grant ratios and amounts vary and it’s common to see challenge grants with ratios such as:

  • 1:2 (Grant maker will provide $2 for every $1 an organization raises)
  • 1:1 (Grant maker will provide $1 for every $1 an organization raises)
  • 3:1 (Grant maker will provide $1 for every $3 an organization raises)

What Organizations Serve to Benefit from Challenge Grants?

Some challenge grants are aimed at a specific subset of the nonprofit sector, while others are more universally open to all nonprofit organizations.

The four main benefactors behind the grants are:

  1. corporations
  2. government agencies
  3. trusts
  4. foundations

A foundation or a government agency might be more likely to limit its grants to a select type of nonprofit, simply based on the nature or the focus of the foundation or agency. A corporation with a broader corporate giving program will most likely be more flexible with its eligibility parameters.

Similar to matching gift eligibility guidelines, many challenge grant programs will accept applications from a variety of 501(c)(3) organizations and educational institutions, including:

  • arts and cultural organizations
  • community based social services
  • environmental organizations
  • healthcare based organizations
  • K-12 educational institutions
  • higher education institutions

Like with any organization seeking a grant, researching and zeroing on the ones best suited to help your nonprofit or educational institution is the best path to take.

Why Pursue a Challenge Grant?

Challenge grants provide a unique combination of incentive and encouragement to reach new fundraising peaks with the knowledge that an even bigger reward awaits your organization if you can meet those goals.

A nonprofit working towards a challenge grant can use the momentum and the impending additional contributions to:

  • fund new projects and programs
  • reinvigorate and grow their donor base
  • target a specific donor segment
  • and much more

Clearly defined goals are always welcome and recommended with fundraising. A challenge grant is a next level of goal setting. Challenge grants are ultimately cause and effect. Reach this first amazing goal and surpass it with the help of a grant maker. You’re fundraising towards an exact number, which donors will respect and be more inclined to help you reach than not.

Impress upon them that their donations go beyond the amount they physically contribute. A $100 dollar donation to a nonprofit with a challenge grant program is more than a $100 dollar donation.

The stakes are raised, and so too are the donations.

View our Ultimate Guide to Challenge Grants >

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